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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Korea Roundup II: Crab, Spicy Noodles and More

Here are highlights of my Korea trip 2009-2010:

Pro Kanjang Kyejang (프로 간장게장)
Seochogu Chamwondong 22-19
Phone: (02) 543-3529

Meaty raw crab marinated in soy sauce, garlic and other spices. Usually, this kyejang is too salty from an overload of soy sauce, but this one was just salty enough for me to want to suck out all the gooey flesh out of the claws and smother some steamed rice into the crab shell filled with innards and leftover marinade to make the best finale to a keyjang meal.

A bonus was the live small octopus (산낙지) we had as an appetizer, as they wiggled and suctioned their tentacles onto the plate for dear life to resist our chopsticks. They were hard to grab and to hold but a fresh dip of soy sauce with some wasabi and it hit the spot. Chewy but extremely fresh and tasty.

We also had the spicy fish stew that was good but not as good as the fish stew we made from the fresh taegu fish bought from a fish market near Sorak Mountain in Korea's east coast.

One thing I always lament is the sad dearth of good rabokki places in LA. Rabokki is like ttukbokki, the spicy rice cake dish mixed with spicy pepper paste, garlic and other spices, except it uses ramen noodles either exclusively instead of or in addition to rice cakes. I personally like it better than ttukbokki that can be pretty dense. Anyhow, I had excellent and very spicy rabokki right outside of the Pyunghwa Market in East Gate where the shopping rules. Get off at Dongdaemun Park (formerly Sports Stadium). Actually, fashionistas would probably already know how to get to the Pyunghwa Market, so the place is just outside of that market. Don't forget to get the kimbab to go with it to temper the saltiness and spiciness.

Another relevation was that the old rest stops peppering the freeways throughout Korea have vastly improved. To my delight, the food served in those rest stops (휴게소) was actually good! I had yookkyejang, which is a spicy soup of beef, bean sprouts, radishes and green onions that is the perfect meal when it's sub-zero temperatures out there.

Unlike the tasteless fish cake soup and kimbab (Korean rolls) containing sausages too bright pink for their own good (not to mention of mysterious origin) of the rest stops past, this soup was actually made from real beef broth and had some flavor.

Most of the newly renovated rest stops had decent food, so it didn't matter which one you went to. I was traveling east toward Sorak Mountain in Kangwon Province so take note.

Hamheung Shikdang (함흥식당)
Koseungkun Keojineup Keojinri 5ri 8ban
Phone: (033) 682-1180

Located in a tiny town near the DMZ Museum (I didn't link to the museum itself because I had problems calling it up but it should be that is worth a trip, Hamheung is all about the freshest fish of the season. When I went during the winter time, it served dorumook in addition to usual suspects like the flat gajemi and the saltier jogi. Dorumook is translated as "sandfish" but I'm not convinced real translations exist. Ditto for gajemi and jogi. You're just going to have to trust me and order them. Dorumook wasn't my favorite (too many fisheggs) but the perfertly charred grilled fish platter went very well with the rice and multiple side dishes it was served with. The fish was cooked and seasoned just right and the "seasonal grilled fish sampler" must change constantly. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

So You Think You Know Bulgoki?

Just returned from a great eating tour of Korea. My first stop undoubtedly had to be Kwangyang Bulgoki Marohwajeok in Samseongdong. It's important that this place not be confused with Kwangyang Bulgoki down the street, only a few restaurants away. It's deceptively close, with the same name but it's not related and not nearly as good as the one that has Marohwajeok as part of its title.

One wouldn't think of bulgoki as something a person living in LA may crave when going to Korea, but I definitely could not get this out here. The meat is hanwoo, meaning Korean beef, and it has a distinctively fresh taste I've only detected in the best grass-fed beef in the best steak houses here.

But the clincher is the marinade, both for its amazingly balanced flavor and curiously invisible nature to the naked eye.

What I mean is that when the beautiful raw meat arrives, there's no juice dripping, no chopped green onions or sesame seeds on the meat. The meat looks plain and totally unseasoned. But the minute it hits the grill that looks made out of twisted copper wires, it imparts a perfectly well-seasoned flavor. The wait staff insisted they used soy sauce to marinate their meat, but there was no trace of it that I could witness with my eyes. My palate, however, did taste it. I was in heaven. I couldn't get enough.

What makes this bulgoki better are the accompaniments, of course, such as the kimchi, greens to wrap the meat in and other side dishes sprawled across the table.

I particularly liked the kookmul kimchi, the non-spicy, ice-cold, radish kimchi usually served in the winter that is so refreshing to have with the heavier-tasting meat.

I also liked the greens that were lightly dressed in some rice vinegar and sesame seeds. Koreans call these greens chicory but they must have been from a different family from the chicory we're familiar here. My favorite combo was taking a piece of bulgoki with some of these greens and wrapping them in a perilla leaf. So delicious and perfectly balanced!

The other side dishes were average, if not curious (e.g., a weird smoked salmon, lettuce and peanut butter concoction I used to have at local robatayakis way back when that strangely works when drinking beer or sake but frankly doesn't go with bulgoki).

It's fairly expensive but well-worth it. The only risk is that you may seriously overeat once you taste this mysteriously well-marinated meat that --if you'll excuse the cliche --melts in your mouth. I'm not sure what some people mean when they say that Korean food and barbecue is better in LA than in Korea. What are they smoking? Get thee to Marohwajeok!

Kwangyang Bulgoki Marohwajeok (광양불고기 마로화적)
Kangnamku Samseongdong 120-3
(02) 539-9922